Thursday, April 23, 2009

Libraries Need to Think More Like Trent Reznor

I seem to be reading a lot about Trent Reznor as of late. I have been forwarded the "Nine Inch Nails iPhone App Extends Reznor's Innovative Run" article in Wired and a Twitter update from a librarian colleague/former student referenced Digg Dizlog: Trent Reznor.

For those saying "Trent Who?," Reznor is a musician/noisemaker for the group Nine Inch Nails (NIN). He has been gaining accolades for his efforts to make music affordable for the consumer while helping artists earn a living. He has done this by rejecting the major-label system and instead distributing music directly to the public via the Web. Many feel that Trent Renzor represents the future of the music industry.

The Reznor piece that caught my attention was a (15 min) YouTube video of a presentation given by Michael Masnick, the founder of Techdirt. Masnick has distilled Reznor's business model down into a simple equation: CwF + RtB = $$$$.

The "CwF" in the equation stands for Connect with Fans. Using various approaches, like dropping USB keys containing new music in the bathrooms at NIN concerts, Reznor has been able to engage, energize, and get fans excited. He continuously experiments and does new stuff to connect with his fans. Masnick commented that he had to change his presentation as he was building it since Reznor kept coming up with new stuff.

The "RtB" in the equation stands for Reason to Buy. This is where Reznor uses his connection with fans to give them reasons to purchase concert tickets, t-shirts, etc. For example, he also creates special 'box' packages of his products which are considered by NIN's fans to be special and unique. Reznor is giving his followers an opportunity to have something that they feel has a significant value added.

The "$$$$" is self explanatory.

Amid all the discussions about the future of academic libraries, I began musing what academic librarians could possibly learn from Reznor. What I came up with was the following (and half-baked) modified Masnick equation:

CwC + RtU = a dynamic library

The "CwC" in the equation refers to Connect with Community. Academic libraries should constantly thinking and prototyping new ways to connect with our communities. This is not to say that libraries are failing to connect. The challenge is that libraries tend to make a connection and hang onto it well beyond its useful life. We shouldn't be satisfied with how we are connecting today.  

What are the next connections out there that will allow academic libraries to integrate the services and resources we offer into the lives of our communities? How many prototypes and pilots can we create and get out there as fast as possible?  

Academic libraries must implement ideas that are half-baked and equally willing to let them go when they are not working out. We need to continuously experiments and do new stuff to connect with our communities. We need to be so dynamic that others need to change presentations about libraries since we keep coming up with new stuff. We need to learn how to plan less, prototype more!

I doubt Reznor performed a formal needs assessment, a literature search to see what other were doing, and charged a planning committee for each of his ideas. 

While academic libraries are playing around with ways to connect with our communities, the important question that each needs to ask and answer for itself is what are the Reasons to Use (RtU)? An interesting analogy was drawn between libraries and the post office in the report No Brief Candle.
Unless libraries take action, participants cautioned, they risk being left with responsibility for low-margin services that no one else (including the commercial world) wants to provide. An analogy is the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Its innovative, high-margin services, such as international and overnight delivery, have been taken over by private firms, leaving the USPS largely with its lowest-margin-of-return function: domestic mail delivery
Libraries and the post office do share many similar qualities. The physical access to information was our first class mail service for a very long time. We still have (largely) organizational structures, services, and resources allocated around the organization and delivery of physical information. As technology has improved, our communities have begun to use other pathways to deliver and receive their information (first class mail), be it in physical or digital formats.

As with the postal service, at some point libraries could be left offering services that no other service provider finds of value. We could be 'stuck' offering our equivalent of second and third class mail services. Sure, these services are reasons to use the library, but should we be satisfied in offering lowest-margin-of-return services? 

The challenge is that some librarians may actually feel that it is the role of academic libraries to provide lowest-margin-of-return services since those are the ones our communities say they need. Instead, I feel that librarians need to begin identifying our added value services. What are the premium packages and the limited addition services which we can provide to support our communities? How can we create a new organizational models to support these services and the Reasons to Use?

CwC + RtU = a dynamic library

So, do academic libraries need to stop thinking less like a post office and start thinking more like Trent Reznor? I think so. 

Should academic libraries be scattering USB drives containing attention grabbing content on the floors of our student Unions during orientation week? Absolutely! 

However, we shouldn't do it again next year, let alone the year after that.  

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Anonymous said...

This is a smart, funny and cute analysis!

Travis said...

Very neat post. As for the fact that "some librarians may actually feel that it is the role of academic libraries to provide lowest-margin-of-return services", I would reply, "Okay, but why not do more?". This is more or less what you are saying, but I think you should state it more directly.

Also, you referred to Reznor as "Resnick" a couple of times, apparently combining his name with that of Masnick (whose Twitter feed led me here). :)

Eric Schnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Eric Schnell said...

A friend of mine let me know of the name mashup and it has been corrected. I am a Goo Goo Dolls fan so I have Johnny Resnick on the mind as well.

Susan said...

Your comments apply to all service industries in the US if the country wishes to remain competitive, not just libraries!

Kat said...

Nicely done! Great points about libraries connecting with their communities, and a great analogy.

Although when I first read the post title I thought "Trent Reznor is still around?" I hadn't thought of him since the mid 90s!

Woman said...

Have you thought about reaching out into your community for people who have new ideas? Also: define community. Do you mean academic community or the neighborhood surrounding the library, or the town, or the world writ internet?

The further you wish to reach, the more it would make sense to open the doors to those outside of the library who might have ideas for how the library can better serve their needs.

Eric Schnell said...

I intentionally did not define community since is depends completely on the mission of the library. One could view it as the academic community, AND/OR the neighborhood surrounding the library (campus), AND/OR the town, AND/OR the world.

stevenb said...

Hi Eric. Enjoyed your post and I agree that we need to keep figuring out good ways to connect with our community and find ways to turn students and faculty into passionate library users. I don't know that it necessarily involves the next great technology though. I think we already have a way to create the connections with the community - just by working on building relationships - one at a time if we have to. I wrote more on this at Designing Better Libraries and why I think this is the right time for this path to the future. See

Norm said...

It's a point but not a very formidable one - count this as basic MBA thinking. Libraries do offer high margin of return services - access to databases, web-based reference and bibliographic instruction. That's not to say every library does either of those things well - if we want to engage in some further navel contemplation it would be good to find institutions and methods that we can benchmark against. I've seen librarians who just want to provide services to the most gifted or those who are willing to walk in the door - rather than reach out and include all students and all faculty. A lot of what we need is more of "get off your duff" and reach out beyond the four walls of the library.

Eric Schnell said...

I never argued that libraries don't offer high ROI services.

We need to reevaluate all our services and retool / reinvent / experiment with them to make sure they, as stevenB's post discusses, provide a meaningful experience.

After all, that is what Reznor is *really* selling, isn't it? An experience?

Perhaps I should rewrite the equation to CwC + RtU = a meaningful library experience.